Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Original Airdate: July 9th, 2009 on BBC One

Back in 2005, Russell T. Davies helped revive the hibernating Doctor Who franchise with a reboot that made many common-sense changes, like switching to film over videotape and increasing episode length to the 50 minutes that are standard for a TV drama. He also added story structures and a sense of humor that revealed he had been closely studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nearly 11 million people watched the debut, and now Doctor fans have taken over every last nook and cranny of the internet. Davies is a man so smutty that he named a trio of miniseries after the gradations on a penile hardness scale, so of course he jumped at the chance to make an adults only Doctor spinoff.* Some letters were rearranged and some clues were dropped in episodes of Doctor and Torchwood was born. For its third season, Torchwood was a five-episode series called “Children of Earth.” I rewatched all five for this review, as well as a few extra episodes of Torchwood and Doctor for good measure.

Strengths

  • The 456. “Children” is a first contact story, and it’s always fun to see how any given creative team conceptualizes that moment when humans realize they’re not alone in the universe. Of course, that moment had already come and gone for the Whoniverse, but this season chronicles first contact with a different alien species. Except it’s technically the second contact, but most people don’t realize that. Anyway, the litmus test here is whether or not the aliens are cool, original and intimidating, and the 456 are definitely all three. They demand that British civil servants secretly construct a chamber full of various exciting toxic gases, and then they beam down an ambassador that’s really more of a thrashing, tentacled, vomiting monster. It also yells a lot. And then come to find out that they slowly suck minerals and resources out of terrified, living human children to use as recreational drugs. It kinda blows ALF out of the water.
  • Provocative ethical problems. So of course the aliens want more delicious children. But they’re not unreasonable—they only want 10% of all human children. Of course, if they don’t get their fix they’ll use unimaginably powerful alien technology to destroy all life on Earth. This raises several issues. Do you fork over the kids? The British government feel like they have no other options, although of course our hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Arrow) eventually finds a solution. The show still doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask whether it’s okay to do something unethical even if you have no other option—we watch as Jack lacerates himself over coughing up an orphanage’s worth of podlings to the baddies back in 1965. Even more revealing are the conversations we watch unfold at the top levels of the British government over which kids get selected. They eventually decide on students from the 10% worst performing schools, because if there’s anything Torchwood loves it’s shitting all over the sunny optimism about human nature on display in Doctor. But how would you choose which kids get turned into alien bath salts? At this point I’m required to remind you for self-promotional reasons that if you want additional discussion of BBC miniseries about aliens invading decades after they first appear to a select group of individuals, you can always read my review of Invasion: Earth.
  • Jack & Ianto. Get poised on your fainting couches, because one of the revolutionary, edgy changes brought about by Torchwood is homosexual PDA! Gloriously pansexual Jack has been sniffing around Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) since season one, and now they’re finally an adorable couple. Straight-laced nerdy secretary Ianto is a plausible and satisfying partner for a charming, cheeky hero like Jack, and a scene where Ianto angstily confronts Jack about his actions in 1965 adds texture to their relationship. Of course, Davies ruins this like the big drama queen that he is, but I’ll hold off on that for now.
  • Extended families. Over the course of “Children of Earth,” we get to see how the alien invasion impacts Jack’s daughter and grandson as well as Ianto’s working class sister. Lesser shows would have tried to squeeze an hour of drama out of an introduction to the family members of the main cast, but Torchwood manages to handle something as momentous as Ianto coming out to his sister elegantly in a single scene. It’s also clever for narrative purposes to include Jack and Ianto’s families so we can get a perspective on the alien crisis from people that aren’t government officials or rogue secret agents.
  • Peter Capaldi. Hey, look who shows up in “Children” as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher! Of course, Davies and Steven Moffat have a patently nonsensical explanation for why Capaldi showed up in both Torchwood and Doctor in other roles before he became The Doctor, but it’s always a pleasure to see Capaldi regardless of the circumstances. His performance is the highlight in a season that also features stellar turns from Barrowman and Eve Myles, who plays nominal main character Gwen Cooper.
  • Espionage. In the long run it doesn’t matter whatsoever, but much of the season is taken up by a plot thread involving Frobisher’s secretary, Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo, The Good Wife). Quick sidebar: Davies explained in an interview that they couldn’t get Freema Agyeman to reprise her character Martha Jones in season 3 of Torchwood and that instead viewers get Lois, “who’s kind of the Martha figure,” which is true in that she is a black woman and in no other way. Good one, Russ! Aaaaaanyway, Lois thinks Frobisher’s skullduggery is weird and becomes a mole for Torchwood, complete with high-tech gadgets and clandestine meetings and pointlessly announcing her secret affiliation at the most dramatic possible moment. This kind of stuff is always thrilling to me, even if it’s completely pointless as far as the main plot is concerned.

Weaknesses

  • Dramatics, your honor.** For some reason, Jack brings Ianto with him to have a violent confrontation with the 456 and it ends exactly how you’d expect when you fight evil aliens with secretaries. Hell, we already established that you can’t even fight evil civil servants with secretaries, although Frobisher’s senior secretary (Susan Brown, The Iron Lady) gets the last laugh in episode five. And it’s not just Ianto who dies pointlessly to lend everything a sense of tragic gravitas: Frobisher kills himself and his entire family in the finale! If Davies and Ryan Murphy should ever find a way to collaborate on a TV show, it would inevitably be the world’s most melodramatic exploration of the identity of cis gay white men.  

*Ironically, the new show’s “after dark” sensibility was thwarted later in its run when BBC blanched at all the gay sex that happened in the fourth and final season. They also edited earlier episodes after popular demand from younger viewers.

**If you recognized that this was a Good Wife reference in honor of Cush Jumbo, you win a fabulous prize to be determined later or possibly never!

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Torchwood should please all but the most ardent sci-fi haters. I was astonished to find that I liked every episode I watched of Torchwood more than I enjoyed the one Doctor episode I watched for this review, which was “The Christmas Invasion.” And that’s classic Tennant/Piper-era Doctor! HAS THE WORLD GONE TOPSY-TURVY?!

NEXT TIME: We stay in Britain but go plummeting down a couple of age brackets as I review Shaun the Sheep!

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Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

As you may or may not be aware, in the spring of 2011 there was a moderately well-received action blockbuster starring Bradley “No, I’m Not Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds or One Of The Hemsworths” Cooper. In some quarters, it was received as a welcome breath of fresh air, since it was original IP in a mainstream movie marketplace glutted with sequels, remakes and reboots. (It wasn’t that original, though—it’s a loose adaptation of a novel.) Of course, the natural thing to do when you have a creative and fresh movie is to stretch its premise out into twenty-two episodes of TV. Despite its dubious origins, Limitless isn’t terrible. It shares the idea of a preternaturally talented and intelligent protagonist reluctantly collaborating with the FBI with Blacklist and it takes the notion of a thinly drawn high-concept sci-fi crime fighting mechanism from Person Of Interest, but it’s more fun and enjoyable than either of those shows, which are big hits in the world of crime procedurals. In light of that fact, CBS cancelled it after one season, because we can’t have nice things.

Strengths:

  • Compelling premise. Hey, if you’re going to go high-concept, you better have a good concept. For the most part, Limitless delivers, despite brazenly flying in the face of neurology. You see, the action here hinges on vagabond schlub Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) getting access to an experimental new drug called NZT, which unlocks “the hidden potential of the human brain.” They might as well have had him get zapped with a super-powered cosmic magic ray, because this is effectively a superpower. It makes him one of the smartest men on the planet, able to think 20 steps ahead, process information at light speed, recall anything perfectly and provide effective couples counseling. (I wish that last part was a joke.) This fantasy is especially compelling in an age of information overload. Even before the Internet, writers like Borges were imagining the insanity of trying to extract all the world’s knowledge from an infinite library. Who knows what good old Jorge would have said about Wikipedia? And the possibilities are especially, erm, limitless for CBS’ beloved crime procedural. Which leads me to…
  • Brian Finch. Brian’s a fun protagonist for a show like this, because he’s just a regular, goofy guy who plays guitar, cares about his family and friends and seems to have a weird thing for puppets. This is in marked contrast to protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Bobby Goren who appear to have, in D&D parlance, minmaxed: because they’re so preternaturally intelligent, they never learned how to interact normally with people and wind up being aloof, unrelatable assholes. Brian is genuinely likable partially due to the fact that every day the NZT wears off and he goes back to being “normal.” This isn’t to take some anti-intellectual posture where I valorize lowest-common denominator stupidity, because the crime procedural version of “smart” leads us to cartoon characters like Sherlock Holmes who bear no resemblance to actual, intelligent problem solving. When he’s high, Brian’s just as cartoonish, but at least we can chalk it up to the fact that he ingested a pill that looks like a contact lens.
  • Serviceable plot. This episode gives us an effective example of a high-quality plot for a crime procedural, which is to say that despite being fairly by the numbers it does what it’s there to do: it provides some fun crime-fighting texture and gives us an emotional hook. The FBI’s case du jour starts as a routine meth lab bust, but instead of drug dealers, they find a right-wing militia planning on building a dirty bomb. The emotional hook and the window into the case are provided by one Chris Garper (Derek Goh), the innocent younger brother of one of the terrorists. Brian establishes a rapport with him, but it develops that Brian will have to manipulate him into putting himself in harm’s way so the FBI can arrest his brother by implying that they’ll take it easy on the elder Garper, since Chris insists he’s not all that bad, dirty bomb notwithstanding. Of course, Chris gets killed and Brian is sad and it all ties into the larger story arc about Brian’s conflicted feelings regarding telling his partner the shocking truth about her father against the wishes of the shadowy overlords that give him a different mysterious drug that staves off the side effects of NZT. It’s convoluted but reasonably competent. But about that partner…

Weaknesses:

  • Jennifer Carpenter. Brian’s partner is Detective Rebecca Harris (Carpenter, Dexter.) As mentioned, she’s given a juicy if contrived backstory involving her father dying of NZT abuse after being part of a secret pilot program to test the drug, a fact the FBI concealed from Harris. As back stories go, it’s not exactly going to light the world on fire, but it’s better than nothing, and I’m sure other Limitless cast members like Hill Harper (CSI: NY) or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Scarface) would make hay out of it. But Carpenter comes off like Acting Robot #12812. It turns out that she’s fine at spitting out lines about terrorists encrypting data via steganography but when it comes time for actual feelings she’s got jack squat. Her burgeoning romantic relationship with the FBI’s physical combat trainer Agent Casey Rooks (Desmond Harrington, Dexter, again) is none too promising.
  • Over-the-top graphics. Oof. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is the network that gave us CSI, the show famous for up-close-and-personal computer generated images of poison slowly spreading into someone’s liver or a bullet flying through a carotid artery. This might be helpful for visual learners, but the rest of us can just take your word for it. Limitless is all about cutesy-poo graphics that tell us what’s going on inside Brian’s head. When he tells Chris about how the FBI will rehabilitate his brother post-arrest, the lies he spins are shown to us in videos embedded in cartoon speech bubbles next to Brian’s head while he narrates, presumably because the writers didn’t feel like actually scripting the conversation. When Brian breaks surveillance etiquette by guzzling down too much cranberry juice, we’re given a jovial illustration of his overtaxed bladder. When he analyzes a computer screen full of phone numbers, they fly around his head in different colors. Look, if you think your show’s script is boring, work on the writing. Don’t try and flummox the viewer with a bunch of flashy visuals. It just makes it seem like you think the audience is stupid.

Final Judgment: 6/10. Limitless is charming enough that I’d watch more but not so charming that I’d recommend it to someone that isn’t a fan of crime procedurals to begin with. It doesn’t fully escape the aspects of the genre that have grown stale.

NEXT TIME: In a stunning development, I’m going to continue reviewing shows that are currently on the air and new for the 2015-2016 TV season (now that we’re a month away from the 2016-2017 season.) Come back next time to hear about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Original Airdate: May 15th, 2000 on The WB

Over the last couple of decades, TV shows about teenagers dealing with the supernatural have proved a reliable source of ratings and dedicated fans. In addition to The Vampire Diaries, we’ve seen titles as varied as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Teen Wolf explore their characters’ angst via cheesy monster makeup. Roswell wasn’t quite as successful as these shows—it only made it three seasons before going back to its home planet and dying along the way—but it definitely followed the same formula, and much like Diaries, its consistency varies sharply from episode to episode. I watched six episodes from the first season for this review.

Strengths

  • Action thrills. “Destiny” is the exciting climax to season 1, so it’s not surprising that there’d be some thrills, spills and bellyaches. There’s car chases. There’s shootouts. Our two leads jump what looks like 20 feet into a reservoir to evade bloodthirsty FBI agents. It’s all very stimulating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Liz & Max. Roswell’s protagonist is the all-American girl next door Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby, Unreal.) The heart of the show is her ill-starred relationship with undercover alien Max Evans (Jason Behr.) The viewers would be doomed to scene after boring scene of these two making ineffectual goo-eyes if there wasn’t chemistry here, but thankfully they seem like a very real couple with years of history and charged sexual tension. Behr’s performance in particular is very low-key and understated, but instead of seeming wooden he radiates an alluring calm and confidence even in times of ridiculously heightened conflict and drama. His performance affirms an unearthly nature that you’d expect to find in an alien, and it offers a startling contrast with Appleby’s confusion and vulnerability. This episode is particularly momentous for their relationship, as well. The happy couple are presented with mounting evidence that Max’s destiny lies in a relationship with his fellow alien, Tess Harding (Emile de Ravin, Once Upon A Time.) Early in the episode, Max assures Liz of the profundity of his love for her, telling her that she was the only thing giving him strength and perseverance when the FBI was torturing him in the previous episode. The dialogue doesn’t read like much on the page, but the chemistry between the actors really sells it. The effect is doubled at the episode’s end when the characters finally figure out how to activate a message from their alien relatives and Max’s long-lost alien mother (Genie Francis, General Hospital) confirms that Tess is fated to be Max’s bride. As Liz tearfully walks away from Max, the emotional impact is real and persuasive. It makes for a very satisfying cliffhanger.
  • Alien superpowers. Did I mention that the aliens can disable vehicles at 50 feet, induce hallucinations in hapless FBI agents and change the molecular structure of doorknobs? They can totally do those things, and it’s awesome. Giving the aliens weird powers spices things up, because there’s only so much you can do with canonical aliens evading detection. It gives them a meaningful way to defend themselves against hostile humans without completely sacrificing their human “identity” and therefore their relatability.
  • A well-executed double/triple-cross. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a scheme. In this episode, the aliens are finally able to neutralize the threat posed by zealous FBI crusader Agent Pierce (David Conrad, Ghost Whisperer.) To do this, they need to develop the perfect plan and marshall all their allies and powers. The key player in all this is Sheriff Jim Valenti (William Sadler, The Shawshank Redemption.) Over the course of the season, Valenti had been an ambiguous factor for the aliens. He doggedly investigated them and created a constant atmosphere of paranoia, but he also resented federal overreach when the FBI started their own investigations, even when his own investigations depended on intelligence from the Feds. By the time Max is kidnapped by the FBI, Liz is desperate enough to place complete faith in Valenti, but that faith is put to the test when it’s time to finally take action against Pierce in this episode. The show goes in for the good old-fashioned double/triple-cross—at first it seems like Valenti was only playing along with the aliens so that he could lead them to Pierce, and this would make a certain amount of sense. Valenti’s father was a dedicated alien conspiracy theorist drawn to Roswell for the obvious reasons, and Valenti’s initial passion is fueled by the desire to prove his father right. It’s also reasonable to assume that his allegiances would lie with his own species, especially since rogue alien Nasedo (Jim Ortlieb, Flatliners) is going around killing people. But, no—it turns out that Valenti was on the right side all along as he helps the aliens capture Pierce. This makes sense too: Pierce is a big fan of using extrajudicial force on innocent teenage civilians. The key to a successful triple-cross is plausibility. There has to be sufficient motivation and ambiguity around a character to make the viewer believe a double-cross could really happen, and it worked here for me thanks to the residual mistrust built up around Valenti over the course of the season. Here’s a great example of the power of serialized storytelling on television. By creating a whole roster of episodes where Valenti is on various sides of an allegiance, there’s an elegant aura of instability around the character’s motivations that would be very difficult to achieve in a screenplay.
  • Comeuppance. As mentioned, a huge chunk of the previous episode was centered on lengthy torture and interrogation sequences. Now the tables are turned, and Max has complete power over Pierce’s fate. The show underscores this by having Max repeat some of Pierce’s intimidating spiel verbatim. It’s a bit of a hack move, but it’s still effective, and it was very satisfying when Pierce finally got killed.
  • An exciting set-up for next season. In addition to the aforementioned romantic strife, the grand finale also offers an exciting glimpse into the plot of season two. Max’s mother’s message tells the aliens that a great and evil enemy has pursued them to Earth and that they may not be able to identify the enemies until it’s too late. All of a sudden, the FBI is the least of their problems. What’s more, activating the message also alerts unknown agents all over the country, as showcased in a chilling closing montage. If I were a fan of this show, it’d definitely make me want to come back for more.

Weaknesses

  • Slo-mo. Ugh. Don’t do this. It never looks cool. It’s never exciting. It only underlines the paucity of any given action sequence or dramatic moment if it has to be slowed down to make it seem important or interesting. You’re better than this, Roswell.
  • Contrivance and artificial tension. Whoa, it sure is a happy coincidence that Valenti stumbles on Liz and Max just as they’re about to be captured by the pursuing FBI agents, and it’s an even happier coincidence that Valenti brought along the alien Michael Guerin (Brendan Fehr,) and it’s the happiest coincidence of all that it’s only then that Michael discovers his magical ability to disable vehicles. Also dumb: an argument among the aliens about whether they’ll stay in Roswell or go on the lam and settle down somewhere else. It turns out this show is called Roswell, not Schenectady, and there’s no way in hell they’re skipping town. Why bother pretending like that was ever a serious option?
  • David Conrad. Pierce is supposed to be menacing, authoritarian man made into a monster by his unrelenting pursuit of alien justice. Instead, he comes across like a smarmy milquetoast. The contrast is dazzling. Pierce is the main antagonist of the season, but he’s not believable for a second.
  • Native American mysticism. I’ve written in the past about the unpleasant tendency in media to exoticize Asians, but this is a phenomena that can affect all people of color. Another prominent example is the frequent othering of Native Americans, especially around areas of religion and spirituality. It’s possible for anyone who’s not Christian to be a victim of this kind of flimflam, but the wide variety of unfamiliar religious traditions practiced by hundreds of Native tribes leads to, at best, a messy syncretism in white media. You also probably know I’m not a super big fan of using people of subaltern identities as plot devices for the betterment of the white, straight, able-bodied characters. Both of these sins are on display here: our alien pals resurrect Nasedo with magical Indian healing stones, dispensed over the course of a trilogy of painful episodes set to generic mournful flute music. At least it wasn’t as painful as when the X-Files did it…multiple times across several seasons. Sigh.
  • Michael & Maria. So some genius decided that since Max & Liz work so well, we need to pair off the other four main characters. Thankfully, the romance between Alex (Colin Hanks, Fargo) and Isabel (Katherine Heigl, Grey’s Anatomy) takes up a scanty amount of screen time in the episodes I watched. I wish I could say the same about the subplot between Michael and Maria (Majandra Delfino.) You see, Max & Liz are a perfect fit for one another, so we’re given a ham-handed contrast in the form of a fire & ice pairing. The actors are good at convincing me that they dislike each other, but the sparks are decidedly artificial. I could buy that they’d hook up once to hate fuck, but the tepid drama of the on-again/off-again romance on display here is the stuff of an exhausted writer’s room.

Final Judgment: 5/10. When all’s said and done, there’s a lot to like about Roswell, but you have to put up with a lot of crap to get there. Besides that, the sci-fi elements and the soapy teenybopper fare will put enough people off in equal measure that I doubt it’s on the top of anyone’s list. I will say that some of the episodes I watched were quite good—the show generally does better when its sense of humor shows through.

NEXT TIME: Yes, it’s another kid’s show—but it’s one I remember from my own youth! Check back next week to hear about Talespin!

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”

Original Airdate: May 28th, 2015 on FOX

Hey look, I’m reviewing a show from this century! The executive producer of Wayward Pines is M. Night Shyamalan, which is somewhat ominous considering the quality of his last eight movies, but thankfully he didn’t write any of the episodes. Pines is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. This appears to be one of those situations where the entire enterprise was meant to be contained in the first 10-episode season, but the show evidently did well enough in the ratings to merit a second season despite the fact that they’ve run out of novels to adapt. (Game Of Thrones syndrome?)

Strengths

  • Intriguing. Pines owes a suspiciously large amount to Lost and Twin Peaks, and while it manages to set itself apart during its later episodes, the burden of derivativeness looms large over the first few. Anything operating out of the Lost playbook risks suffering from the same ill that plagued that show–lots of mysterious things that promise an interesting story dangled in front of you without any payoff. Thankfully, Pines overcomes this potential flaw and by the fifth episode we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s going on without having sacrificed any suspense. In the meantime, the intrigue of the decidedly weird town of Wayward Pines is delectable. Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, There’s Something About Mary) travels to the secluded Idaho hamlet on an investigation for the Secret Service, but when he tries to leave he discovers that all the roads out of town circle back around. He sets off into the forest, only to find a giant electric fence with a sign warning him to return to Wayward Pines, and that “beyond this point you will die.” He even realizes that there are tiny speakers planted everywhere outdoors to simulate cricket song. Part of the reason mysteries and science fiction have proved themselves to be such enduring genres is that humans have a natural curiosity. If you present us with a set of unusual circumstances, we want to know what’s going on. Even if the explanation is ultimately unsatisfying, the very wonder of the intrigue itself is a pleasant sensation. Problems only arise when you try and prolong it indefinitely.
  • Creepy. Pines starts as a mystery and is eventually revealed to be full-blown science fiction, but it consistently offers the rewards of horror fiction. Imagine finding yourself trapped in a town that looks perfectly normal on the outside but which operates on a set of unknown principles, controlled by unknown actors. The consequences of trying to escape are dire: episode 2 ends with a brutal public execution. There’s also plenty of more traditional horror film elements–in this episode, Ethan finds his way into a mysterious storage facility. He’s searching the interior of a car when he’s abruptly interrupted by someone smashing through the window with a syringe full of sedatives. That’s right, a good old fashioned jump scare. Hell, at the end of the episode we get our first glimpse of the hideous, carnivorous monsters that live outside the fence. Strong horror fiction often melds mundane fears with extreme consequences. Here, a fear of nonconformity or malicious nurses and cops gets parleyed into a violent, high-stakes environment. It’s very effective.
  • Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Terrence Howard (Empire) are good in everything, but they especially shine here as the banal faces of evil in Wayward Pines. Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the local hospital. When Ethan wakes up there after the car accident that brought him to Pines, she’s all benevolent smiles, and Leo masterfully manages the transition into creepy insistence that Ethan follow doctor’s orders and then into outright menace as she threatens to give Ethan the incorrect amount of anaesthesia, ensuring that he’ll wake up during brain surgery, unable to move but feeling every cut of the knife. As the first half of the series develops, her aura of veiled menace is pitch-perfect. Howard also displays excellent modulation as the smarmy yet intimidating Sheriff Pope. His character also starts out on the ambiguous side, but even after it’s revealed that, why yes, he DOES slit people’s throats in the town square, Howard’s performance remains captivating and the sheriff seems entirely real–and entirely unpredictable.
  • Raising the stakes. So resolving the mysteries at hand and having Ethan escape the trap of Wayward Pines would give the show plenty of material. By the end of episode 3, the viewer is operating under the assumption that the real world is just on the other side of the fence. It’s tantalizingly close but hopelessly inaccessible, and some unknown evil is controlling the denizens of the town. Then the show tosses us a curveball–Ethan gets the upper hand on Pope in a fight and kills him. After Pope’s been incapacitated but before Ethan finishes him off, Pope murmurs, “You think you want to know the truth, but you don’t. It’s worse than you could ever even imagine.” His claim is immediately proven true. Ethan uses Pope’s keys to open a gate on the fence–and a barely-glimpsed monster emerges to steal Pope’s corpse. I liked Pines quite a bit, but even if it had been terrible I would still have wanted to see Episode 4.

Weaknesses

  • Matt Dillon and Charlie Tahan. This show’s single biggest deficit is the gaping black hole where the personality of the main character should be. Dillon’s emotional range as Burke appears to have “stony” at one end and “slack-jawed” at the other. In the first three episodes, he discovers the dead body of one of his colleagues. He witnesses the execution of his erstwhile co-conspirator (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) after they botch an attempt to escape the town. He’s confronted with the news that his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Sinister 2) and son (Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) will also be trapped with him in Wayward Pines. Burke’s reaction? Just another day at the office! This is more of a detriment in any given episode the more heavy lifting that Dillon has to do, but it’s never a good look when your lead actor is lousy. Tahan’s performance as Ethan’s son Ben is one note played over and over again on a poorly tuned and possibly rusty saxophone, and that note is “sulky teenager.” But he’s a child actor. Matt Dillon is a 35-year Hollywood veteran. What’s his excuse?

Motivation: It’s a mix of knowledge (who makes the mysterious phone calls that tell the townspeople what to do?) and survival (Why is this weird, aggressive sheriff in my house all of a sudden?)

Final Judgment: 8/10. This was very good, if somewhat light. One wonders what they’re going to try in the hastily conceived second season. I’d also give an 8/10 to the season as a whole, though there are ups and downs.

NEXT TIME: I travel to a steampunk version of the 16th century as I review The Mysterious Cities Of Gold!

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”

Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”

Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1962 on ATV

If you’re familiar with any creation of the husband and wife duo Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it would have to be 1965’s Thunderbirds, the James Bond-esque marionette adventure series. It spawned a terrible 2004 film reboot as well as a salty parody in the form of Team America: World Police, but other than that, Thunderbirds has faded into nostalgic obscurity. But in the 1960s, the Andersons made a cottage industry out of what they called “Supermarionation,” producing a whopping eight series. Fireball XL5 was third in the lineup, giving us a choice example of early science fiction for kids on TV.

Strengths

  • High level of craftsmanship. Okay, so the marionettes and the elementary-school-diorama-style sets don’t exactly look sharp. In fact, the production values are jarringly bad—a devastating explosion bears a striking resemblance to a handful of firecrackers detonating, the limited range of motion inherent in a marionette leads to risible action sequences and when Doctor Venus (Sylvia Anderson) is tied to a sacrificial altar, her permanently cheerful rictus undercuts some of the tension. But there’s genuine love on display here. This is as good as marionettes can possibly get, and the starship vessels and sets are at least as immersive as what you might find on Fireball’s  low-budget sixties sci-fi cousin Star Trek. I think a good comparison here is Max Steel. The people behind Steel had 38 years of added wisdom and experience when it came time to create a visually appealing science-fiction show for kids, and it came out looking like Max Headroom had a back-alley abortion. It probably cost a hell of a lot more than Fireball, too. The moral here is that even if you’re working with antiquated technology on a shoestring budget, you can still create a (mostly) captivating aesthetic.

Weaknesses

  • Sludgy pacing attempting to compensate for an underwritten story. Do we really need to see the entire countdown for the rocket’s launch sequence all the way from 30 on down? How about the endless interstitial shot of everyone on board the Fireball sleeping? And of course it takes a goddamned eternity for Col. Steve Zodiac (Paul Maxwell, Aliens) to find his way into the titular Sun Temple. How hard is it to fill 25 minutes with actual content? Of course, once you hear what the actual story is, you may find yourself wishing that they had spent more time dicking around…
  • Colonialist racism. Okay, any story about alien contact where there’s a vast disparity in technological aptitude risks flirting with colonialist themes. You can be conscious of that and try and address those themes intelligently, you can do your best to elide the issue or you can stupidly blunder right into the heart of the matter due to lousy writing, and that’s almost certainly what happened here. Now, I’m not sure that’s better or worse than deliberately writing an artful tome about The White Man’s Burden but with aliens like Arthur C. Clarke did in the landmark 1953 novel Childhood’s End. It’s certainly just as annoying. You see, this episode tells the story of Zodiac’s team launching missiles carefully calibrated to break up asteroids that imperil Earth’s space program. These missiles come close to the planet of Rajusca without actually harming anyone there. Rajusca is unexplored but known to be inhabited, and the missile attracts the attention of a pair of bumbling, dark-skinned sun-worshipping cultists. In a hastily appended coda, we learn that these two were exiled from Rajuscan society “because of their evil hocus-pocus.” Needless to say, much is unclear about Rajusca and how technologically developed they are in general, but the cultists know that the missile came from Earth and retaliate by destroying the World Space Patrol’s launching pad using some sort of giant mirror apparatus. The Fireball is dispatched so that the WSP can see what’s the big idea, pally, and the cultists promptly grab the first white lady they see so they can sacrifice her to their god. Look, you have the entirety of space to work with and any number of outlandish aliens to create. Do we really have to recreate this particular flavor of tedious Earth bullshit on our distant sci-fi planets?

Motivation: Welp, once you’re strapped to the good old sacrificial altar, it’s hard to think much past survival.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Excellent if you like puppets. Terrible if you like anything else.

Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”

Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”

Original Airdate: May 8th, 1998 on BBC

Tonight’s offering is a six-episode miniseries about an alien invasion. It was a co-production between BBC Scotland and the network now regrettably rebranded as Syfy. Let’s see if you can predict how this is going to go—it’s the late 90s, you’re a producer at BBC, it’s been nearly a decade since there’s been any new Doctor Who outside of a terrible made-for-TV movie, and you’re making a sci-fi miniseries about alien invasion. Is it any surprise when it centers around two government employees, one of whom is a headstrong man determined to Believe and the other is a more circumspect lady scientist? Will you be surprised when there turns out to be smoldering sexual tension? Or when the lady gets abducted by aliens and interfered with in possibly compromising ways? Will you be surprised when it turns out that it’s not nearly as good as The X-Files? I submit that you will not, in fact, be surprised by any of this.

Strengths

  • An intrinsically interesting premise. Anyone with any inclination towards science fiction or astronomy has surely had their own fantasy about what it would look like if aliens made contact. People have been writing fiction about alien encounters since at least the 2nd century and even when we’re rehashing X-Files it’s still just as fun now as it was then. What will be the first sign? Will we know it when we see it? How will we respond? What will the aliens be like? How will they treat us? How will we treat them? Over the course of six episodes, Invasion proceeds to offer its own answer to each of these questions in a reasonably satisfying way, so that already checks a lot of boxes for any sci-fi fan tuning in.
  • Consistent thematics. One advantage a six episode miniseries has over a sprawling 208-episode-and-counting-with-no-resolution-or-ending-in-sight affair like X-Files is that you can have neatly planned and executed thematics that extend over the entire run of the show. The end result is something well-drawn if not particularly deep. The theme on offer here is in the same family as the one developed in Gundam: while Gundam explored the dangerous intersection of war and public science, Invasion deals with the dangerous intersection of the military and the cutting edge of science, or at least those sciences that pertain to First Contact, anyway. Invasion makes a pretty persuasive argument that if we put the armed forces in charge of dealing with any aliens we happen to meet it’s not going to end well for anyone involved. It also makes a persuasive case for the fact that it’s entirely likely and realistic that the responsibility will fall to the army nevertheless. After all, if a UFO enters the atmosphere, who’s going to be the first to notice? The people with radar, of course, and that’s exactly what happens here. Later episodes in the series explore this theme in more depth, but there’s plenty of groundwork being laid here. Most of the episode takes place in the present day, but we learn from the first scene that the aliens first made contact in 1944 during the Blitz, where a soldier with a quick trigger finger promptly guns one of them down. The fate of the second alien will be detailed later in the series, so we quickly move to the scenes of the episode that portray the radar discovery and introduce us to our hero, Flight Lt. Chris Drake (Vincent Regan, 300.) Drake and his navigator, Flight Lt. Gerry Llewelyn (Stuart McQuarrie, 28 Days Later) proceed to investigate the unknown craft from several miles up. Through means unknown, the alien craft disables the instruments in Drake’s plane, and despite orders to the contrary he shoots it down in retaliation. The blowback damages Drake’s own plane. He and Llewelyn have to eject. Llewelyn dies and the entire miserable chain of events the show chronicles begin to spiral out of control. This episode and the next involve the requisite tug of war between Drake and his superiors over whether or not this encounter was in fact unearthly, and of course the chain of command isn’t particularly inclined to listen. Eventually, the army tracks down the occupant of the downed craft and shoots him as well. Miraculously, they haven’t killed Earth’s third alien* visitor, but they have wounded him sufficiently so that he’s ripe for the picking when the other, evil alien race abducts him. Even the most relaxed alien race would probably be reaching for the gigantic ray gun about now, but the series ultimately adopts a less direct route. Explaining that, however, would push me outside of my jurisdiction, which leads me to my major complaint…

Weaknesses

  • Wasting time on paper-thin characters. The first episode of this show put me in the shoes of Milhouse van Houten, and that’s never a good thing. Usually when I summarize part of the plot of an episode in the service of making a point, I’m only scratching the surface. Well, that last paragraph is pretty much all the meat hanging off this particular bone. Sure, some other stuff happens. We’re introduced to other main characters. But the show is terrible at characterization. There’s nothing remotely interesting or three-dimensional about any of them. Now, I love a well-developed character study. I also think the stereotype about sci-fi/fantasy being all about plot and ideas with no time for well-drawn characters is a bunch of crap. Sadly, Invasion fits this stereotype to a tee. The Scully to Drake’s Mulder is Dr. Amanda Tucker (Maggie O’Neill, Shameless), who is technically an applied mathematics professor but who is for all intents and purposes a Swiss Army Scientist who can handle any problem that arises when presented with invading aliens using inconceivably advanced technology. (Mercifully, they have someone else on hand for biology-based problems.) Tucker’s chunk of this episode involves her discovering anomalous signals, going to Scotland to investigate, stumbling upon the military base, meeting Drake and showing up at the alien’s hospital room just in time for him to be abducted by the other aliens. I’ll grudgingly accept that Invasion as a whole is not too concerned with well-developed characters and that it can only excel in story and theme. I am not pleased about the fact that we get short-changed on story and theme in this hour so we can get introduced to Tucker and a handful of other supporting players. If you’re going to give character development short shrift, you might as well commit to it and truly play to your strengths.

*Despite having recently stumbled out of a UFO, the guy isn’t actually an alien, but we don’t learn this until later.

Motivation: What could be more tantalizing than the knowledge of a forthcoming alien invasion? Of course, pretty soon everyone’s priorities shift to survival.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Part of the problem here is pilot syndrome: the show’s still getting its feet under it and it has to lay groundwork to a certain extent. But it’s nearly 20% of the show’s entire runtime, so any amount of wasted time is going to put Invasion at a disadvantage.

Final Series Judgment: 6/10. The story does get deeper and more satisfying as things develop, but the characters don’t. There’s also the matter of an undercooked romantic subplot between Drake and Tucker. But if you want aliens and you’ve already seen every episode of X-Files and Who twice, you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: I continue my ongoing investigation on the theme of How Campy Is Too Campy by reviewing Manimal!

Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”

Original “Airdate:” September 29th, 2006 on Bandai Channel

In the last installment of my sporadic coverage of the world of anime, I discussed Lupin The Third, a sprawling multimedia franchise that first appeared on TV in the 1970s and which subsequently grew like kudzu. The Gundam franchise makes Lupin look like a deep cut. Gundam also arose out of humble circumstances in the 1970s and basically took over the damn world. TVTropes calls Gundam “the Japanese equivalent of Star Trek.Trek is probably the closest comparison possible, but it still doesn’t do Gundam justice, since Gundam is about twenty times more successful. Looking at TV alone, the Gundam-verse has spawned 19 series. That count doesn’t even include today’s offering, because Stargazer is a companion web series to Gundam’s 11th TV reincarnation, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. In addition to TV, Gundam has spawned feature films, direct-to-dvd offerings, manga, video games, model kits and a garbage barge full of toys and other merchandise. Tokyo even plays host to a Gundam theme park. With 19 different shows, I somehow doubt this will be the last you’ll hear from me on this franchise.

It’s also worth noting the fact that this is a web-series. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon offering critically acclaimed programming, it’s impossible to ignore web platforms in my quest for great TV, but I will have to apply some holistic metrics to determine whether or not any given web series is worth a review. There are a few factors working in Stargazer’s favor–it’s intimately connected to a traditional TV offering while standing on its own as a discrete story, it’s high-profile enough to merit coverage, it was distributed through an established, non-YouTube platform and the entire show gets in and out in less than an hour. It’s three 15-minute “episodes” long, and for the purposes of this review I watched all three. It also helps that it turned out to be really damn good–and sadly topical.

Strengths

  • Giant flying robots. Well, I don’t care about these so much, but I suspect that if you’re sniffing around the perimeter of Gundam you’ve got a vested interest in seeing super-cool giant flying robots, and here they are. It’s actually a pretty canny innovation on Gundam’s part. You want to create a space opera with a focus on war and internecine political conflict, but how do you set yourself apart from the pack? The answer turned out to be 86ing spacecraft-based combat and inserting giant flying robots piloted by vulnerable fleshy humans. Seems like it worked!
  • Probing, elegant, multi-faceted exploration of war. Now, to Gundam fans Stargazer might be old hat. The series has long focused on war and conflict, since its titular draw is in fact war machines. It’s possible the franchise’s writers have been running out of fresh insights on the topic, since they’ve been covering that beat for 36 years. But to someone with absolutely no prior experience with Gundam, this was an unexpectedly insightful tour de force. The main theme here is the potential costs of the military-industrial complex’s encroachment on supposedly neutral scientific endeavor, but the show manages to touch on many evils in what amounts to a scathing indictment of warmongering. In this iteration of the Gundamverse, we’re presented with a scenario where genetically engineered superhumans known as Coordinators have established themselves on extraplanetary colonies, while Earth remains the domain of non-engineered humans, known as Naturals. Stargazer takes place in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of a second brutal war between Earth and the colonies. The overarching story of this war is told in Destiny, while Stargazer focuses on the experience of two new characters during the conflict. Selene McGriff (Sayaka Ohara, XXXHOLiC) is a hotshot scientist at DSSD, a politically neutral space agency hoping to survey and develop areas beyond Mars. She’s working on a cutting-edge Gundam called Stargazer. It’s designed to explore space unaccompanied by humans thanks to advanced AI technology. The first 20 minutes of Stargazer chronicle the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic attack from the colonial military that destroys, among other things, Beijing. Selene narrowly manages to get to an Earth-based DSSD launch-site to escort Stargazer to a DSSD space station. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sven Cal Bayang (Daisuke Ono, K), a soldier in an elite unit of the Earth military which is rapidly being mobilized. Ultimately, Sven leads an operation to claim Stargazer for the Earth army. It’s horrifying to see earnest, geeky, apolitical scientists get gunned down in cold blood, but we only reach this climax after running a gauntlet of similar horrors. During the opening attack, Selene is accompanied by her mentor/implicit lover, Edmond Du Clos (Jouji Nakata, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works.) Just as we’re starting to get a feel for who he is and the groove of his relationship with Selene, he dies horribly in a fight with an attacking Gundam so that Selene has enough cover to get to the launch site. When that Gundam finally gets brought down, it turns out it was being piloted by…child soldiers. In a video message, the children announce that their parents were all killed in the war by Naturals, and with dead eyes they swear vengeance. Seeing this, Sven’s colleague Mudie Holcroft (Rina Satou, Negima!?) parrots what she’s been taught: “The only good Coordinator is a dead Coordinator.” Before long, we’re seeing her terrified screams when she dies horribly. The child soldiers also mirror Sven’s history—he was once a happy and enthusiastic child with a fascination for astronomy and all things space related, but then his parents died in a terrorist attack and he became a ward of the state. After some A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing and reeducation, he’s turned into a dead-eyed soldier with no qualms about murdering the astronomers he didn’t get to become. When Sven’s normally gung-ho colleague Shams Couza (Hiroshi Kamiya, Angel Beats!) tells Sven of the plans to seize Stargazer, regardless of how many civilian personnel have to be killed, Sven’s only response is “I see.” A frustrated Shams bitterly replies, “You’re always like that…making that ‘It has nothing to do with me’ expression.” Indeed, earlier in the episode we saw Sven unblinkingly raze a refugee camp packed with civilians. He mildly asks his commanding officer if he’s to restrict himself to just killing terrorists. His CO replies, “Can you tell the terrorists apart from the refugees?” Sven replies that he can’t. “Well, that’s how it is.” And where does this all lead? The climactic battle ends with Selene and Sven improbably confined together in Stargazer, which is slowly heading back to Earth. It’s not entirely clear, but at the end of the episode it’s strongly implied they didn’t survive the trip home. This is the nature of war: a vicious cycle of humanity’s worst instincts cutting a swath of destruction through everything in its path. Regardless of the politics—regardless even of the outcome—nobody wins. All of the people we’re given any understanding of in this hour are destroyed. Humans get turned into cruel fighting machines, even when humans are trying to turn cruel fighting machines into benign space exploration tools. Stargazer may be the only “character” that really walks away from the fray, but what has it learned? Selene tries to teach it what she learned from Edmond—don’t look to the side to enviously compare and compete with those around you. Don’t look down for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Look up. Look for the better nature. Look for hope. Look towards the stars. What else did the humans teach Stargazer?

Weaknesses

  • Opaque battle sequences. I’ve never been a fan of the action genre and especially not the war genre. It’s not necessarily because of any particular aversion to the content or the stories—though I’m not exactly a fan of the good old ultraviolence. A big factor, however, is that I hate not knowing what’s going on in a story. I don’t mean because of artsy surrealism or obfuscation. I get the sense that in the final battle scene here, I’m supposed to know exactly what’s going on. But I haven’t memorized which ships are on each side, because I’m not a hardcore Gundam nerd. I don’t know who’s speaking when their faces are mostly obscured by battle helmets, because I haven’t memorized the sounds of everyone’s voices. I understand what the outcome is when the hurlyburly’s done, but they might as well not show me the battle itself because it’s just a big chaotic mess. And from what I understand, that can be true of the fog of war as well—yelling and screaming and bullets ripping by and complete and utter disorientation. I gather that this is a feature and not a bug for some folks, but it actively gets in the way of my enjoyment because I can’t tell what the fuck is happening. Why not just skip the battle altogether if it’s only going to make sense after close study of the Gundam wiki, which for the record is perhaps the geekiest document on the planet?

Motivation: Survival. Unfortunately, everyone loses.

Final Series Judgment: 9/10. This was searingly on point and also had giant flying robots. What’s not to love? I’m not sure how it measures up to the rest of Gundam-–after 11 preceding TV shows, this might be well-covered ground—but as a newcomer, I was blown away. They really accomplish quite a bit in less than an hour.

NEXT TIME: I’ll struggle to turn in a review of Community that isn’t covered with biased fanboy slobber.

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”